|By "Pass the Pitons" Pete Zabrok
From Oakville, Ontario
Dec 9, 2007
DR. PITON’S HEADING TIPS
Placing your own heads, and placing enough to actually get good at it, is something that you may not learn for quite a while along in your wall career. This is because the easier and hence more popular routes you will first be climbing are almost always equipped with fixed heads - some bomber, and some terrifying timebombs! Believe it or not, I think I had climbed about nine El Cap routes - including a couple A3's and two A4's - and didn't have to place more than two or three heads total, because all the heads were fixed. #10 or so was Reticent Wall, and it had almost no fixed heads. I had virtually no heading experience, so I kinda had to learn quickly!
Since then, I have climbed a bunch of harder routes and obscure routes, many of which required a ton of heads. So here is what I can tell you:
Heading isn't hard, it's easy! And not only is it easy once you get the hang of it, it is totally bomber. I have placed literally hundreds of heads, and I can think of but a single head I placed that failed, and that was because I bounce tested it too aggressively.
STUFF TO KNOW:
- You can get good at heading, and you can get good at it quickly
- Before long, you will trust your own heads far more than you will trust anyone else's. If you are reading this post, chances are at present the converse is true. Nowadays, I frickin' hate fixed heads, and get spooked by them
- I love heading, and I'm good at it. It is possibly my strongest aid discipline. I am far better at it than nailing, even though they call me "Pass the Pitons". However my nailing has really improved, and I'm not so lame at it these days. Plus I have a musical ear being a trombone player, and I listen to the tone of the piton I am nailing. As you nail, the pitch becomes higher because the amount of pin vibrating gets shorter. When the note remains exactly the same after two consecutive hits, stop nailing – you’re done. Any more and you’ve over-driven your pin
- Heading is destructive as Kate points out, and you should try to place a beak-type piton whenever possible before you place a head. By this, I mean any one of the three sizes of BD Peckers, including the huge, the old standby A5 Birdbeak which are superb if you can find them, and the two newer styles made by Vermin
STUFF YOU NEED:
- The right head for the right placement. Copper heads are harder and stronger than aluminum, so use them in the small placements. Aluminum is much stickier than copper, so use them in the bigger placements, or placements that are more marginally shaped
- Use copper in #0 and #1 sizes only. Use aluminum in #2 sizes and up. I have a few old #2 and bigger copper heads sitting in a bag somewhere, you can have 'em if you want 'em cuz as far as I'm concerned they're useless
- You need a Yosemite hammer by Black Diamond, the opposite end of which is superb for placing heads
- You need a big-ass punch [like the one Batgirl dropped for me, mwah-ah-ah] for placing the things, one about a foot long and an inch or so in diameter
- You don't need a dulled chisel - the hammer plus punch is better
- Get a wire brush, too - a small one, like a toothbrush
- A Fish Beef Bag to put the things in. Otherwise the head cables snag on everything on your rack
- Make sure you trust your heads! Don't buy heads from the Mountain Shop! Ask Batgirl about that....
- Fish makes arguably the best commercially available heads. I like the heads made privately by Bryan Law [copperhead = minerals] and Eric Kohl [Klaus]
- You will use almost #2 and #3 aluminum heads exclusively. Get a few #4, and a handful of #1 and #0 and you're good to go. I like the double-heads in the #1 and #0 sizes, too, but not so much in the bigger. A few equalizing sliding-cable #2's can be useful sometimes, but not as often as you would think
- You will rarely use circleheads, and almost exclusively in horizontal placements. You will use five or ten “straight” heads for every circlehead
THE BUTTERKNIFE - YOUR MOST IMPORTANT TOOL
- Chances are, your first head placements will be on Trade Routes where you need to replace some manky timebomb with a near-busted cable, or remove a "deadhead". Accordingly you need the right tool for the job, and this is a "Butterknife".
Wow, when I see the closeup, this one looks to be a triple-header - two copper deadheads above an aluminum deadhead. This was on the Ranch above a very nasty ledge fall. I was not about to climb on fixed mank!
The Butterknife you see above is a real beauty made for me by Bryan Law - it is a chisel sharpened to a point [on a grinder, I assume - be careful not to overheat it and wreck the temper of the steel]. It is rounded on the top side you see, for hammering and prying behind the heads. The edges are honed razor-sharp – it is a ferocious device, and you will need to make a cardboard sheath for it
- Removing heads is difficult and time-consuming, but hella easier with this device
- The Butterknife can get up under the head. Pry it gently from the top and bottom, and try not to wreck the rock, not only because you want to conserve the resource, but more cuz you want to conserve the placement!
- Removing deadheads is usually the way to go. Not only is it a service to your Fellow Climber, but chances are the deadhead is in the best placement which you want to use, and what's left isn't as good
- You're nuts to go on a big wall heading route without a Butterknife. But if you do, your big long punch can be used, though much less effectively, to get behind deadheads and pry them out
- You're looking for the right placement. While heads will fit almost anywhere, what you want is a placement that most closely resembles a stopper placement, but isn't quite good enough for a stopper. You will be molding the metal to fit the shape of the placement. So look for something that is wide at the top, and tapered towards the bottom [duh]
- Clean it well with your wire brush, and try to blow out the dust [hard cuz it is usually over your head and out of reach]
- Enhancing placements with your chisel or punch is most assuredly cheating. If you are making a first ascent, this may be preferable to bolting, however. I have done this very very few times on blown out placements where I removed a deadhead, but it is almost never necessary. Don't cheat - find something that works
- Get the right head for the placement. Don't use big copper or small aluminum
Pay close attention to this next bit! Did you even know that this was so?
- Look at your head, and figure out which side of the head the cable is coming out of. The cable that you hang from goes into the head on one side, does a 180-degree bend at the top of the head, and returns along the other side which I will call the "free end" side, because the free end of the cable is buried in the head where you can't see it. The cable does not go into the centre of the head, it goes in one side. So there are four orientations - two "sideways" and two "straight in".
- Orientation #1 straight in has the cable you hang from facing out towards you, and the free end facing in against the rock. This is the WRONG way to place a head, because of two problems: the first is that the part you weight is outside not in, thus increasing the bending moment and leverage to pull out the head. The second and more important problem is that you can ding the cable while placing it, which you must be very careful never to do. Ding the cable badly, and you’re buggered
- Look at your head sideways, and figure out which way is which. You MUST get the orientation correct!
- Holding your head sideways against the rock to get the orientation right, tap it with your hammer to pre-shape the head to the placement you have chosen. Do this carefully, and gently. It will take you ten to twenty hammer swings. Just tap it, not bash it. You need to pay special attention to the ends of the head to pre-shape it, because these are the parts of the head that give you the best “bite” against the rock. Imagine a stopper in a placement and you will “get” what I mean. And whatever you do, don't ding the cable!
- Place the pre-shaped head against the placement, with the cable you hang from against the rock, and the free [hidden] end of the cable facing outwards towards you
- Remember - there are four possible orientations of the head, 90 degrees to each other, and three are wrong. Get it right!
- Tap the head with your Yosemite hammer enough to get the head to stick in the placement without you having to hold onto the cable, and now you're ready to place it
- The bigger the head, the more you can hit it with your hammer. The smaller the head, the more you have to use your punch
- Start hitting that bugger right in the middle to push it deep into the placement, and then once done, work the top and bottom. Be careful it doesn't "rock" when you hit the top or bottom - if it does, paste it more in the middle
- Now being very careful not to ding the cable with either your hammer or punch, go to town on that puppy! Whip the snot out of it, paste the shit out of it
"Other good advice I've heard is not to strike it too many times once you think you have it set. After a certain point, you are weakening the placement, the bond between the cable and the swage."
Well, yes and no. You really want to paste the livin' bejeepers out of your head, and really mash it into the crack until "It's 'welder', man!"
I will start with my hammer, do some fine tuning top and bottom with the punch, and then finish it with huge, powerful, but carefully aimed blows of the hammer.
- make sure that when you are really pasting it, you don't over-paste. If you start to see the aluminum separating from the cable, it's time to stop
- and did I mention not to ding the cable?! Sheesh.
Another trick I like to use is to pay special attention to the top, bottom and sides of the head with my punch, putting the punch right on the very edge of the head, and pressing it in against the rock, so I get a bit of a "pinch" against the rock right at the edge of the head
- White powder? Hmmm - you must have sloppy technique. The white powder is rock, and you must have hit the rock instead of the head with your hammer or punch. Clean it out better with your wire brush and start again
- You will need to hit the head a bunch of times before it sets in place enough that you can let go of it – perhaps four or five taps
- Euph, heading is easy! If your heads are not sticking, you are choosing too marginal placements to practice on. Instead, choose a placement that is almost good enough for a stopper, but not quite
- There is nothing wrong with learning to use super-marginal placements, but in hundreds of head placements, that rarely is required. Usually you can find something decent, which when properly used is superb
- When you do have to make marginal placements, make two head placements close together, and equalize with a very small sliding X. If you don't think you'll fall on it, tie the [untied] sling through the cables. If there is risk of whipping, add carabiners, even though you lose height. And of course a Screamer or Scream-Aid, depending on how marginal. A #3 head with a Screamer will hold a huge fall, incidentally. So will a couple #0’s or #1’s equalized with a sliding X, and with a Scream-Aid.
- Usually these sliding-X’s are very close together, making tying a knot in the X impossible. Bring 2- and 3-foot hunks of untied Supertape webbing for this purpose, lightly tied in a knot so you can clip them to a crab for storage
- Scream-Aids are great to use on smaller heads or manky heads, but be sure to use a carabiner. I didn’t, until Kate taught me the hard way not to girth hitch the long sling on the Scream-Aid directly into the head cable
- I prefer head cables that have a big enough swaged loop to fit two carabiners - makes it easier to fiddle the pro in when you're on it, or vice versa – to get on it after you have fiddled in the pro
GETTING ON THE THING
- If you have not placed many heads, this will be scary. After you have placed lots, you will feel amazingly secure, because you will have the confidence to know that your placement is the bomb, and not a bomb
- Test from as low in your aiders as possible. Phrases like, "Dude, I'm testing this thing and stepping down, so take in a couple feet of slack" should become part of your repertoire
- Make a gentle bounce test in your aiders, enough to tell you it will hold you. Maybe 2x your body weight force, except on those #1 and #0. When using the #0, you will almost always equalize with a second, and as for #1, you will always try to use a double one.
- Don't overbounce. An aggressive bounce-test can generate forces in excess of a thousand pounds, enough to blow out a perfectly good head placement [my mistake that one time on Sunkist]
- Step up in confidence, knowing "It's welder, man!"
YOUR DR. PITON BIG WALL TIP OF THE DAY
When standing on manky or small heads on low-angle terrain, try to place the sticky rubber of your shoes against the rock while you are standing in your aiders, so all of your weight is not on the head – some of it is actually being taken by the friction of your rubber on the rock.
Get yourself a third adjustable daisy, and use this to simultaneously and equally weight three manky heads at the same time!
TO CLEAN OR NOT TO CLEAN
That is indeed the question. Usually, you will KNOTT clean your head, mostly because you pasted it in there so well
- You can clean a head if you don't over-paste it. Do one or two only[!] GENTLE funks with your hammer, up and out on the head cable. Watch the cable where it comes out of the head - if it starts to rip through the aluminum, leave it. The head will either come very easily with one or two funks, or it won't. Don't try to remove it if it won't come out easily, because you will just bust the cable and leave a deadhead
- The shape of the placement will often determine if you think you can clean the head or not. Look to see how much resistance to upward and outward pull the rock will create - some placements are more "open" than others
- Cleaning your heads will allow you to examine the cleaned head, and show you just how little of the back of the head is actually in contact with the rock – you will be amazed! Truly! When you have seen this a few times, you will realize I wasn’t kidding when I told you how hard you have to paste the things, and how you should try to pinch the edge of the head against the rock for a little extra bite
-On Reticent Wall, we brought too many copper heads and not enough aluminum. We were also way short on heads for the whole wall. I have never done a route before or since that required so many heads – we made a fairly early ascent, and there weren’t many fixed heads. Consequently, we had to re-use heads again and again. By about the third or fourth time placing the things, you have pretty much destroyed the malleability of the metal, and the things are neither strong nor sticky – quite terrifying!
- So if you remove a head to re-use it, leave it in the rock the second time you place it. You don’t want to keep reusing the things, that’s for sure
TRICKS, MYSTERIES, AND SECRETS
- I never use a chisel to make X's in the head like you see in the old textbooks, a punch is fine
- The old texts had this joke where you were supposed to "sniff" the head after you placed it, and "if it stinks, get off it!" I thought they were serious, that if you made a bad placement the head would "oxidize" or something and you would smell something "bad" - and this thought came from a graduate chemical engineer! What the heck was I thinking?
- This goes to show you can have a university degree, and still be stupid. I can show you other examples of my stupidity. Flying pigs come to mind.... [ahem]
- A really dirty trick is to leave a timebomb - this is where you purposely place a head just enough so you hope the next person gets on it long enough to climb up a bit, then the head fails. This takes practice, and a mean and deceitful heart. If you do this, don't do it anywhere you could get someone killed! I fell for that trick once and only once on Jolly Roger – the crafty bastard!
- Sometimes first ascensionists will duct tape the clip-in loop of the heads they leave behind, in order to prevent someone from using a cheat stick to clip 'em. Clever, eh? They don't clean the heads for the reasons explained above, but neither can you cheat your way up. I have never done this, however
- As far as I am aware, it is impossible to overheat your head by hitting it - sheesh
Right then, grab a bunch of heads, and "head" out to some lump of rock somewhere that nobody cares about, and nobody climbs on, like a quarry or road cut, and give it a go.
Practise, practise, practise! Test your heads by getting on 'em, and bounce testing. Get you and your friend to both stand in your aiders and test it with the both of you. Learn what holds, and what doesn't. Learn what you can clean, and what you can't.
Do the world a service and climb some Trade Routes, and use your butterknife [or your punch] take out a few deadheads. Not only will you replace them with new heads, but you'll learn how to do it so sometime when you really have to place a head, you will know how to do so with confidence.
Heading is easy, heading is fun. While it is quite satisfying to hear the sound of steel upon steel when nailing pins, and that beautiful ringing tone as you make that perfect placement, it seems even more satisfying to paste those little buggers into the rock.
So there you are, hanging two thousand feet off the deck, your life on nothing more than a tiny blob of metal glued into the rock, and you’re thinking, "Ain't I just bitchin'?!" Life is grand on the big wall......
And if you have any further questions, ask your Wall Doctor.
[the formerly diabolical] Dr. Piton